ON THE WINE ROAD: The joys of being a Cellar Dweller

In my cellar I spend time writing, reading, listening to music and tasting wines from all over the world that comprise selections from my 35-year career in the wine trade. Something old, something new … but always something.

By Michael Venezia // Photography by Katherine Frye

The wine road goes on forever and passes through time and space, eagerly sharing the nuances of the grape, its heritage and wine cellars are the depository of vintages for near and long-term consumption plans.

Enjoying wines from a personal inventory is a highly rewarding benefit of my longtime passion and professional interest in the vinous beverage. It would also offer you continuous pleasure from the space you have identified as your cellar.

By definition, a cellar is a place below ground used for storage. Most common types are salt, root and wine. They are often basement spaces which are used to keep certain products for extended periods of time. Light, temperature and humidity are maintained at various levels in order to optimize the product’s ability to evolve over time. Historically bound throughout wine regions of old world Europe but today in the global wine trade, cellars can be expansive or compact and are used for the storage of barrels or bottles.

Every winery I’ve worked with has a cellar and I’m certain that only a small percentage of Americans have a home cellar. Today your “cellar” can be a temperature controlled 120 bottle display cabinet which is next to your pantry and easily accessible for your immediate drinking pleasure. Many of you can easily store multiple bottles at home for sharing and convenience. A dark closet space can also come in handy for your own cellar selections.

Early in the 1980s while an associate at Kobrand Corporation, I was mentored by a French gentleman named Charles de Casteja. He was living in Tuxedo Park, New York and was a member of the Tuxedo Club, a prestigious gated community just north of New York City.

As told to me by the club’s cellar master, as we descended the stone stairs into the vaulted cavern deep under the 19th century main clubhouse, lavish dinners were held here and up until the stock market crash, titans of industry would dress in their formal attire, called “tuxedos,” and wine and dine. Only the greatest vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhine wines were served and the cellar contained a significant inventory.

It was a dark, cold, damp space with side galleries filled with multiple vintages. In addition, a great cache of Port was also part of the club’s tradition. Distinguished members, after their dinner, would retreat to the library, smoke cigars, and enjoy 19th century Porto. The memories of this cellar are still very clear.

Of more recent memory is a meeting I had in late June at the Augusta National Golf Club to review their wine needs for the upcoming season and The Masters 2016. As part of our visit, we were invited to tour their new cellar. This recently completed state-of-the-art wine cellar vault is accessed by elevator. Once the security code had been entered into the keypad, we descended slowly and in a few seconds arrived. As the doors opened, appearing before me was a most extraordinary sight.

Along the walls, in neatly kept cubicles, resting were thousands of bottles of the finest vintages from the preeminent wine growing regions of the world. Multiple vintage vertical selections from distinguished limited production Napa Valley Cabernets were arranged in library-like precision. In a separate gated and protected area, stacked from floor to eye level were sealed wooden boxes representing the most prominent first growth Chateaux of Bordeaux. They stood like sentinels at ease in their cellar home. In the future they will be enjoyed by heads of state, corporate titans or green jacketed Masters Champions.

Cellar conditions of 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent humidity assured the perfect environment for optimal long-term aging. The inventory of the massive cellar is accessible through a secure system which gives quantity in stock, purchase price per bottle, total value, projected drinking window and member price. There is even a special section which contains several wines identified as the personal stock of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps one of AGNC’s most admired members. It was a great moment on the wine road and into a cellar.

My “working” cellar is modest in size, with 7 different sections identified with a global viticultural fingerprint. My Italian wines are stocked with Tuscan examples from Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile, and the Chianti’s of Ruffina and the Classico zone. Many of my go-to reds are out of the Tuscan camp as Sangiovese is such a great food wine.

Some Barolos, Barbaresco, as well as Amarone in selected vintages, round out the mix. California Cabernets are significantly represented and are available from ‘70s through the current vintage release. Reserve quality, mountain vineyards and age worthy styles are accented. Napa Valley’s, Stags Leap District, and Sonoma’s Alexander Valley are my favorite American Viticultural Areas. A well marbled cut of beef or rack of lamb is the perfect match for these rich and opulent wines.

Champagne is always in the refrigerator and a full range of domestic and imported sparkling wines are important and stocked in my cellar. These wines are quite popular, they never go out of style and are festive, as well as accepted in all social settings.

Great as an aperitif, I prefer drier styles such as Brut. For example, Brut Rose Champagne is a delicious wine to enjoy with Sunday brunch and a Cobb Life magazine.

Bordeaux is in place with a selection of wines which straddle the Haut Medoc with only a few lifestyles of the rich and famous bottles. Given to me as gifts over the years, the value of a bottle of wine is only judged once it has been opened and tasted. Rarely do I drink a Mouton or Chateau Margaux, but I do have a few of these estates. I prefer St. Emilion and Pomerol from the right bank of Bordeaux. The wines are delicious, accessible when relatively young, and affordable. I particularly enjoy these wines with French cheeses selected from the region of Bordeaux.

The French are serious about cheese and a memorable wine road experience was dining in a restaurant in Bordeaux City where every course was cheese centric. In addition, they had an amazing cheese cellar 40 feet underneath the dining room.

I am passionate about Burgundy and have an interest in the evolution of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in this region of France. Aromas evolve over the years, and the wines can be flashes of incredible mystery after 30-40 years. Some of the Grand Cru vineyards I’ve tasted are extraordinary for 40+ year old Pinot, such as the wines of Nuits St. George, Volnay, Chambolle Musigney and Chambertin. Dried rose petals and ripe red fruits, some earthy aromas are present with a tension and subtle power.

Pinot Noir is known as the “heartbreak grape.” It can be immensely rewarding or extremely disappointing. Great whites are found in Meursault, Puligny, Chassagne Montrachet, as well as on the famous hill of Corton in the Charlemagne Vineyard.

My cellar contains Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the lovely vineyards South of Portland, Oregon. Cool climate encourages the selected Pinot clones to evolve during the growing season and unique characteristics and aromatics reveal themselves. Fabulous with grilled wild mushrooms and planked roasted salmon.

Mature Porto from selected vintages, Madeira, and a small amount of German dessert style Rieslings are represented. These wines are enjoyed often in the colder months as they are usually full-bodied, rich in flavor, typically sweet, and fabulous with blue veined cheese such as Stilton, Roquefort or Danish Blue or savory foie gras and liver pate.

Small quantities of Spanish Rioja, Portuguese Douro Tinto, Australian Shiraz, Chilean, Argentine and South African wine are racked and ready to enjoy with Grand Champion Barbeque, a favorite takeout on Shallowford Road.

I consider all of these wines to be ambassadors of their country, culture and the passion of the people who grew the grapes and made the wine. It is an honor to share my home with them as they are always ready to share themselves with me.

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